Sunday, October 11, 2009

Verb Ballets--80 Years of Contemporary Dance

Varied Verb program on pointe!

For its latest offering Verb Ballets, Cleveland’s “National Repertory Dance Company,” celebrated 80 years of contemporary dance. The results, showcased at the new Breen Center for the Performing Arts on the St. Ignatius High School campus, were very positive.

The program was introduced with a mini-lecture by Dr. Margaret Carlson, Verbs’ Chief Executive and Artistic Officer, concerning the development of contemporary dance and the founders of the movement.

Following the well-presented introduction, the dance segment opened with a fascinating interpretation of ‘LAMENTATION,’ Martha Graham’s 1930 ballet, which finds a solo dancer seated on a bench, enclosed in a long tube of material stretching and pushing the textile to its boundaries of elasticity. Katie Gnagy, emotionally moved within the boundaries of the fabric to show the frustration of the confinement and its resulting grief and emotion.

‘CROSS CURRENTS,’ a company premiere of a 1964 Merce Cunningham dance, was danced to the atonal piano music of Conlon Nancarrow. Using stylistic moves, in a robotic pattern, the controlled bodies of the dancers were a vision of pure abstraction. The overall effect was excellent, thanks to Ashley Cohen and Katie Gnagy who were in total control of their moves. Unfortunately, Antwon Duncan seemed uncomfortable, tentative and had difficulty holding the necessary freezes.

Ian Horvath was the cofounder of Cleveland Ballet. One of his high point choreographic creations is the 1975 ‘LAURA’S WOMEN,’ based on the music of Laura Nyro’s “Poverty Train.” An excerpt from the ballet was presented with a restaging by Carlson. Erin Conway Lewis gave an absorbing interpretation to an exploration of Schizophrenia.

A company standard, Heinz Poll’s ‘DUET,’ was again danced by the company’s strong male dancer, Brain Murphy, but with a new partner. Due to an injury, Andrea Blankstein, a member of the Ballet Theatre of Ohio, stepped in. The result was a different, but charming interpretation. Blankstein added a delicate presence. Her toe work, smooth movements and partnering skills were all on pointe. The lifts and carries were well executed. Blankstein and Murphy made the work look effortless and were in perfect sync with each other and the music.

‘SLEEP STUDY,’ David Parson’s 1987 choreographed piece to the music “High Wire,” was restaged by Carlson. Costumed in pajamas, the dancers rolled on the floor, sometimes along side each other, sometimes onto someone, sometimes in tandem with other sleepers. The overall effect of everyday sleeping movements, well-timed to music, was totally enjoyable.

Heinz Poll’s brilliant 1996 creation, ‘BOLERO,’ was mesmerizing. The enveloping Maurice Ravel score lends itself to a well-disciplined corps of dancers. And, in the main, Amy Miller’s restaging developed the needed patterned movements. A fusion of Indian and Spanish movements, the precision piece concluded to screams of pleasure from the audience.

Combine martial arts with music and the results can be compelling, as demonstrated by ‘TAI-QI KUNG FU FAN FORM,’ a piece developed for the 2008 Chinese-hosted Olympics. Having been in China shortly before those games, I saw groups of people in the parks in various cities doing this “routine.” Little did I realize that it would some day be included in a contemporary dance program. Using fans to create both visual illusions and a strong snapping sound, the piece required precision. In general, most of the company was capable of creating the right illusions.

‘THE GATHERING,’ choreographed by Terence Green, who, among other credits, has worked with students at the Cleveland School of the Arts, received its world premiere as the closing number on Verbs’ program. The four movement composition about vision of community and belonging, centered its movements around, on and under ten chairs and a table. The dancers often vaulted off and balanced on the set pieces, to enthusiastic reaction.

Verbs’ evening of dance was audience pleasing. However, they still need to find male dancers to accompany the always excellent Brian Murphy. Their latest applicants don’t totally fill their needs. Antwon Duncan often moves without enthusiasm and precision. Gary Lenington seems well disciplined, but his fullback build seems to limit his freedom of movement. Nehemia Spencer and Lloyd Amir Boyd III, both students at the Cleveland School of the Arts, have great potential, but need more training and experience. So, the search should go on for males to balance the excellent females in the company.

Capsule judgement: Verbs’ ’80 YEARS OF CONTEMPORARY DANCE,’ was a bravo evening of dance. It passed the difficult test of holding the rapt attention of a large contingent of students from the Cleveland School of the Arts, who even stopped texting long enough to be an appreciative audience. Well done!